The French have a way with food. As the country with the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world (at last count 600), they certainly take food very seriously. With such greats as Auguste Escoffier, considered by many as the father of modern French gastronomy who famously codified the five mother sauces, namely Béchamel, Hollandaise, Velouté, Espagnole and Tomato.
Eugénie Brazier was the first to be awarded six Michelin stars for her two restaurants Le Mere Brazier. Brazier would go on to inspire modern-day stalwarts such as Paul Bocuse and Bernard Pacaud, both of whom she trained. The stereotypical trope of the moustachioed villainous French chef in movies such as The Little Mermaid and Ratatouille, though obviously parodied, hold a semblance of truth of the obsessive commitment many chefs apply to their craft.
Some of my favourite food memories come from my visits to Paris. Like that one time, I visited Poilâne, the famed Boulangerie, in the sixth Arrondissement. Famous for their sourdough loaves of bread. I remember buying half a boule, it was huge, even for half a loaf and chatting with the assistant at the counter. As the French do so well, she went on to boast about how the bread develops flavour over a few days, assuming, of course, you can bear to not eat it all the minute you get home.
She continued with boisterous enthusiasm that their bread is couriered worldwide to destinations like Japan and the Middle East. Next door to Poilane, you will find Comptoir Poilâne, their sit-down restaurant. I walked in, bread in hand, as is to say I’m a part of the coterie and was promptly seated at a table with a starchy white tablecloth with a single fresh cut flower in a little slender vase. With a mixture of bad French and animated gesturing, I ordered a glass of white wine and a tartine with foie gras — basically an open face sandwich. A simple lunch by French standards but I remember savouring each bite of the earthy, crusty bread with discernible notes of caramel, contrasted by the buttery richness of the foie gras. The crumb was compact, yet there was a lightness to it. Or it might have been the lightness of my mood.
As the world cautiously starts to open up again, hopefully, we’ll be back to visiting far off places, sampling flaky pastries, fabulous wines and tentatively working out exchange rates when we receive the bill. In the interim, here’s a classic French recipe developed by Pierre Troisgros who sadly died in September 2020, age 92.
Monsieur Troisgros is credited as one of the key figures in Nouvelle Cuisine — an approach to cooking and presentation that was a departure from Cuisine Classique. Nouvelle cuisine is characterised by lighter more delicate dishes with a focus on presentation. Le Maison Troisgros is a 3 Michelin star restaurant just outside of Lyon, now run by Michel Troisgros, the son of Pierre. Escalope de saumon à l’oseille is a relatively easy recipe that perfectly encapsulates all we love about French cooking.
Salmon with Sorrel Sauce
Serves four as an entrée
- 500g (2 x 250g pieces) skinless salmon fillets (preferably from the centre of the fish)
- 100g Sorrel leaves, stems removed
- 2 shallots finely diced
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 3 tbsp dry vermouth
- 2 cups Fish stock
- 250ml double cream
- 2 tbsp butter
- White pepper
- Juice of ½ a lemon
We will start with the sauce for this recipe. Sorrel is similar to spinach but with a pleasant acidity that works well with the richness of salmon and cream. Baby spinach can be used in a pinch. Remove and discard the stems of the sorrel. Roughly tear the leaves in two or three pieces.
- Add the butter to a wide saucepan on medium heat.
- Finely dice two shallots and add to the foaming butter. We don’t want any colour on the shallots.
- Add the white wine and vermouth and cook until syrupy and glossy.
- Pour in the fish stock and reduce by half.
- Add the cream and reduce the sauce until the cream thickens, about three minutes.
- At this stage, add the sorrel and stir the sauce, checking for seasoning. Reduce heat to low while you prepare cook the fish. Finish with a squeeze of lemon.
- Using a sharp knife, cut the fillets in two horizontally. For this dish, the salmon fillets need to be thin, so don’t be concerned.
- Place each fillet in-between two layers of lightly oiled wax paper and gently flatten the fillet using a mallet (I use the base of a frying pan). We are ensuring the salmon is a uniform thickness to ensure even cooking.
- Season with salt and white pepper and lay the salmon portions in a dry, nonstick pan on medium heat, and cook the salmon for 1-2 minutes on each side depending on thickness, again, we’re not looking for any colour.
Place the salmon fillet on a warm shallow plate and generously spoon the sorrel sauce around the fish. Enjoy with a chilled glass of white wine, beret optional.